CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a game played in a steady chilly rain, the Falcons were exposed as fake NFC South title contenders by the lowly Panthers.

With the aid of Falcons’ turnovers, the Panthers, who had lost six in a row and only had one win on the season, defeated the Falcons 9-7 on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

“They hung around and we turned the ball over late,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “You do that, you’ll lose.”

After an interception thrown by Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder, Carolina kicker Eddie Pineiro made a 23-field goal for the victory at the buzzer. The Panthers also converted a third-quarter fumble by Bijan Robinson into a field goal.

The Panthers improved to 2-12 on the season and the Falcons dropped to 6-8. Tampa Bay beat Green Bay and New Orleans beat the New York Giants to improve to 7-7. The Falcons are a game behind the Bucs and Saints with three to play.

“I think this team is still super talented and has all of the potential to be everything we want to be,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “I know we need a lot of help. We don’t just get in. Just do our part and give ourselves a chance.”

The Falcons host the Colts (8-6), play at the Bears and close on the road at New Orleans. They’ll need to run the table and get some help to get back in the title race and to make the playoffs.

With the opportunity to win, the Panthers put together a 17-play, 90-yard drive before Pineiro took the field for the winning kick.

“This was more of a four-minute drive,” Falcons linebacker Kaden Elliss said. “Run the clock and the Panthers’ mindset was see what we can get. They were not in a rush. Were not in hurry. It was more methodical this time.”

The Falcons defense was also on the field late in losses to Vikings, Cardinals, Bucs and now the Panthers.

The Panthers had a chance to take the lead late in the third quarter after Brian Burns recovered a fumble by Robinson at the Falcons’ 24-yard line. But the Falcons defense held and forced a 25-yard field goal to make it 7-6 with 13:32 to play in the game.

“It was a helmet,” Robinson said. “He came and hit the ball out. For me, like, I’ve got to be more discipline. When I’m in traffic and there is more traffic, I have to two-hand lock it.”

On the Falcons’ next possession, Ridder drove the offense from their 31 to the Panthers’ 20-yard line before he tossed his 10th interception of the season. Safety Xavier Woods picked off a pass intended for tight end Kyle Pitts at the 5-yard line with 7:35 to play.

“I got around the edge,” Ridder said. “I was able to make the guy miss. I think it was second-down there, we have to just throw the ball away there. Live to see another down.”

Ridder was benched after eight games because of his turnovers. He continue to make decision-making errors that led to the interception. The Falcons just needed to run some clock and get the field goal to take a four-point lead.

“We’re all playmakers,” Ridder said. “We have to go and try to make plays out there. We have to know the time and the right situation. That wasn’t it. If I just ran it our of bounds or threw it over someone’s head. Then we’d live to see another down.”

The Panthers marched down the field for the victory, with Young connecting on pass plays of 19, 20 and 18 yards.

“That wasn’t a very good play by Ridder,” Burns said.Just being able to capitalize off their mistakes really made us win this game.”

The Falcons, who have only beaten one team (Houston) with a winning record this season, held a 7-3 halftime lead.

Both teams got off to slow starts and turned the ball over on downs on their first possessions of the game.

The Falcons were stopped on a fourth down-and-3 from Carolina’s 34. The Panthers were stopped on a fourth down-and 1 from Atlanta’s 34 when linebacker Nate Landman dropped Chuba Hubbard for no gain.

The Falcons punted on their next four possession as the offense couldn’t get much working. On their sixth possession, tight end Jonnu Smith lined up on the left side and ran across the field to the right and up the field. Ridder hit him in stride and Smith picked up 56 yards. Robinson had a 5-yard gain and Ridder the tossed a 2-yard shovel pass to running back Cordarrelle Patterson for the touchdown.

The Panthers finally got moving behind some nice passes from Bryce Young. But on third down-and-goal from Atlanta’s 9, rookie defensive end Zach Harrison dropped Young on his first NFL sack. The Panthers settled for a 34-yard field goal by Pineiro.

The Falcons opened the game with a starting offensive line that featured three backups in center Ryan Neuzil, right guard Kyle Hinton and right tackle Kaleb McGary, who were playing for Drew Dalman, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. Dalman was active, but Lindstrom and McGary were inactive.

Also, on defense, the Falcons started rookie DeMarcco Hellams at safety in place of Richie Grant and Clark Phillips started for Jeff Okudah, who missed last week’s game. Grant played in some nickel packages and Okudah came on for Phillips late in the second quarter.

Along the defensive line, Lorenzo Carter started for Bud DuPree, who was inactive after coming down with a back injury.

The Bow Tie Chronicles